After building IT systems and departments at national and international startups, I recognized the same trend would repeatedly occur. I set out to build a series of guides to help navigate the many IT decisions a leader will make before hiring an IT team. Any vendor, service, or product that I endorse is purely the result of their ability to serve your business — I have no stake in any of them. If this article is helpful and you’d like to explore consulting engagements, please message me or visit my website — www.dave-bour.com for more information.
The Way We Think
I would argue transitioning from a hands-on, technical role into a manager, director, or any strategic position will be most challenging task for those in technical fields (IT/Engineering/Product). While a good individual contributor (IC) will already possess cross-functional and interdepartmental soft skills, letting go of performing the work, respecting alternative approaches to a solution, and learning how to bring out the best in another human begins as an unnatural process. There are three obstacles any IC will need to overcome to be a successful manager.
Obstacle 1: A Shift in Perspective
This is partially attributable to the nature of a technical position. Those successful in IT train themselves to understand problems from a technical perspective rather than a humanistic perspective. Rather than asking ‘how this does problem make this person feel?’ we’ll begin by focusing on the technology behind the problem and what may be causing it. Akin to a doctor developping their bedside manner, IT staff should do the same with their ‘desk-side manner’. IT staff transitioning into a managerial role should learn to manage the people-facing side of technology as a critical component of the process.
Obstacle 2: Exercises in Patience
Another contributing factor demands that you unlearn the habit of problems needing to be fixed immediately. In IT, everything is time-sensitive — the service login issue is preventing someone from being able to work, or the outage is preventing an entire office from functioning. An IC will be able to jump in and fix the problem but as a manager, the challenge is shifting the focus to helping someone else learn how to fix the problem, but learning takes time. Indirect problem resolution will feel like inaction and not come naturally to an IC.
Obstacle 3: Zooming Out
Finally, IC’s are often subject matter experts and are accustomed to designing and implementing a solution. But much like moving from a first person point of view to that of a third person in a video game, transitioning into a managerial role shifts the focus of your success one level backwards. You’ll have a wider field of vision, but others will fill in for the lost depth — and it’s now your responsibility to set the agenda and empower them to enact it.
Guidelines for a Successful Transition
Here are some tips I’ve learned since making the transition to a strategic leadership position in IT.
Mentorship & Reading
You’ll greatly benefit from the guidance of a mentor and building a reading list to give you the tools to succeed. To date, IT people have learned by tinkering, testing, experiencing. Enable this setting — see what happens. Uninstall this binary — what broke? While this is beneficial in figuring out how components of a finite system work together, it spells destruction when managing people. Becoming a manager requires accepting responsibility for enabling others to succeed — taking that lightly, or even unknowingly, is setting yourself, and those who report to you, for failure.
I didn’t have a mentor, but the titles below helped me bound up the steps to developing good management principles.
- The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou
- The Manager’s Path: A Guide for Tech Leaders Navigating Growth and Change by Camille Fournier
- The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins
Achieve Non-Technical Certifications
If you haven’t already, identify and achieve certifications in project management and service and process management to develop your business acumen. The skillset needed to succeed as a manager is entirely different from the skillset that helped you succeed as an IC. You’ll no longer be configuring the settings, but you’ll be developing a budget and timeline, justifying the costs to management, and writing policies. You’ll need to play the politics game and advocate for projects by building consensus across departments and showing the benefits in charts and slide decks.
The following are certifications that empowered me to speak the managerial language.
- Certified Associate Project Manager, Project Management Institute (CAPM — the PMP’s little sibling)
- ITIL v4 Foundations
Learn to Inspire
Engage in philosphical discussions that intersect with business — learn about human development, work/life balance, and motivation techniques. These concepts will supplment leadership strategies and there are a great number of influential figures in this arena. Naval Ravikant, Simon Sinek, Gary V. Stealing from them until you’re able to develop your own perspective on work and life is highly recommended.
Become a Facilitator
Learn how to facilitate a discussion. As an IC and SME, you’ve learned to help your customers ‘cut to the chase’ and give you the problem so you can design the solution. As a manager, you’ll instinctively want to do the same — hand out solutions to problems. This practice will teach someone how to address a problem in the way you would address a problem which has the adverse effect of inhibiting creativity, reducing alternative approaches, and robbing your reports of their ownership over problems and solutions.
Think of it this way — there are many ways to increase customer satisfation through helpdesk tickets. Often suggested solutions include implementing SLAs and metric tracking. Some managers will increase resources to address problems, provide additional training to support staff, or add pathways to request support. These are good initiatives but they all lack participation and exercise with your staff to re-establish what it means to support someone. Ask your team this question but refrain from dominating the conversation and you’ll gain some insight that no survey will provide.
Ask your team to go out and submit a support case with some external party. Maybe they bought a rotten apple from Whole Foods and want to return it. Maybe a package from Amazon didn’t show up.
In tandem with metrics and SLAs, provide an opportunity to empathize and examine qualitative self-assessment questions. Upon closing a support ticket, ask them to put themselves in the shoes of the person they helped and answer the following questions, “Was someone there when I needed support? Were they knowledgable in their answers and guidance?” If the answer is yes to both questions, it was likely a positive experience. At the end of the day, isn’t that the goal?
Understand Modern Managerial Practices
Research and adopt modern managerial practices. Learn how to write a 30/60/90, format a 90 day review, ask yourself what you want to accomplish through 1:1’s. Challenge the frequency of meetings and their goals to identify the core reasons for their existence. This will not only help you keep focus by reducing noise, but is a critical time management skill.
There is a wealth of knowledge in Harvard Business Review and other sources which has been distilled through innumerable blog posts — free to find through Google. Good managerial practices spread like wildfire — there are no secrets here. However, to be successful, you must combine this with your practical experience which is the best part of the process — learning to lead in your own unique way.
These recommendations are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to organizational technology postures and IT management practices. Please reach out if you’d like a consultation customized for your business.